The electoral reform referendum is long overdue

Though it is still early days regarding what the outcome of the referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons will be, there are already signs that the pro lobby will be disappointed. A YouGov poll early this month reported that 43 per cent of those surveyed would vote to keep the first-past-the-post system and only 32 per cent would vote for change to an Alternative Vote system. Meanwhile, Andy Burham, Labour’s election coordinator, stated in an interview that the sole priority of his party next May will be the Scottish, Welsh and local elections set to take place on the same day.

The Liberal Democrats may or may not get their way with the proposed change in the electoral system. Whatever the outcome, however, a referendum on electoral reform in the UK is long over due and it is perhaps the greatest failing of the previous Labour governments not to have acted.

What is most disappointing about Labour’s failure in this area is that they had amble opportunity to act and a clear mandate to do so. If we travel back to December 1997, the Labour government was fresh in power following a landslide election victory. As one of their first acts they established the Independent Commission on the Voting System, popularly known as the Jenkins Commission after its chairman Roy Jenkins, the great social reformer and Home Secretary under Harold Wilson’s administration in the mid-1960s. Its establishment, supported by the Liberal Democrats, was the fulfillment of a 1997 manifesto pledge. It stated:

We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.

The commission was instructed to take proportionality, the need for stable government, extension of voter choice and geographical links between MPs and voters into account. When it reported its findings in 1998 it proposed an AV+ system, a form of Additional Member System where there are both constituency contests and a party list. The party list is used to ‘top-up’ the constituency MPs in a way that makes the member allocation proportional to the votes cast for each party.

A similar Additional Member System had already showed promise in the German Bundestag and in the majority of Germany’s State legislatures. Furthermore, later into Labour’s rule the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were established and were quick to adopt AMS.

The main criticism of the proposed system was that it can to lead to an increased tendency towards hung parliaments rather than stable one-party government and hence the need for coalition governments. Skeptics were quick to point out that at least the FPTP system has created strong single party governments. This reservation, however, has been exploded by the outcome of the last general election and it hardly needs to be said that this advantage can no longer be claimed for the current set-up.

By the time of the 2001 election, no referendum had been held. Most contemptible about the Labour’s stalling on this issue was that it continued to posture that it was going to make a move on reform, yet continued to place the issue at the back of the shelf. Their 2001 manifest stated:

The government has introduced major innovations in the electoral systems used in the UK – for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly. The (Jenkins) Commission on the Voting System made proposals for electoral reform at Westminster. We will review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins Report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster.

By 2005, nothing had been done. The Labour leadership had by this point realized that its Party was now the chief beneficiary of the status quo due to demographics and the distribution of constituencies. Rather than stand by its promise, reference to the report was cynically dropped from the 2005 manifesto and its statement on the issue was cowardly hyperbole:

Labour is committed to reviewing the experience of the new electoral systems – introduced for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster.

By 2010, Labour’s pledge was to hold a referendum on an Alternate Vote system (the very system being proposed in May’s election which only real change consists of casting multiple ballots to ensure 50% of votes go the winner). The manifesto stated:

To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons.

Jenkins was one of the great reformers of recent history and there was certainly no better person to head the commission. There can be little doubt that the question was well-researched and the recommendations fair. The reaction of the Labour administrations to its findings was one of the unfortunate tendencies of their behaviour: establishing independent bodies to investigate an issue, then ignoring them if the leadership didn’t like the suggestions. The same situation transpired when Prof. David Nutt, a university academic and psychiatrist, was appointed to head an independent commission on narcotics classifications. When the body presented some findings and recommendations that weren’t to the liking of the government, Prof. Nutt was dismissed. Rather than have the courage to go by evidence, reason and neutrality, the government in the case of Nutt and the Jenkins Commission backed down if the consequences were politically disadvantageous.

The British public will have a choice next May on whether the House of Commons should adopt AV – a minor change that won’t address the underlying lack of proportionality in the current system. The change is so trivial it is hardly worthy of a referendum. What the British people deserve is a referendum on the original proposal from the Jenkins Commission that was a promise Labour made but failed to keep.


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